Racism and Slavery in America

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Aishani Khurana
18th March 2013
America in the era of slavery
The Origin of Race and Slavery in North America
The origin of race and slavery in North America is often viewed chronologically. Historians are divided on their stance as to whether or not racism may be considered as the root cause of slavery. While some agree on this, others argue that slavery in fact had nothing to do with the origins of racism and that in retrospect, slavery when legalized actually facilitated racism. However, the question is not one of precedence because essentially the social differences including rituals, religion, and language along with inequalities of power between the Europeans and Africans together gave way to racism and slavery. Hence it would be wrong to divide North America in the seventeenth century into the two binaries of race and slavery and consider these realms as mutually exclusive. It was not just racism that made Africans slaves or slavery that made Europeans racist. Rather, the interaction of differences in race and power structure created a realm where each overlaps and influences one other. The two arguments presented by scholars are true yet they are contradictory if viewed from the perspective of causality. This suggests that for both the standpoints to hold true, the occurrence of racism and slavery had to be during the same period in history, not preceding one another. Thus, this paper explores the idea that slavery and racism cannot be seen in a relationship of causality. Instead, slavery and racism are iterative terms, i.e. they are the products of a large number of small unconscious acts and interactive social engagements. As Canessa asserts that “each iteration reinforces or undermines a particular identity, but any single act is unlikely to have a major effect”, it suggests that neither racism or slavery preceded each other, but rather they developed and influenced each other as a result of the interactions between Europeans and Africans. The concept of iteration can be understood by exploring the two different positions that various scholars hold. The first stance that racism preceded slavery, demands an explanation of the word ‘race’ itself. The definition of race includes the biological description of one’s phenotype and their genetic set up. This description often leads to the physiognomic differences which generalize the behavior and social standing of people. Gleaning from this idea of race, it is not a surprise to find that the English described Negros as ‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’ using their ethnocentric lens of what it meant to be ‘civilized’. They used the criteria of color, religion, rituals and economic and social status to demarcate the racial identities as superior or inferior. Carl N. Delger questions the view of scholars who believe that racism was a result of legalized slavery by asserting that even if one believes that “slavery evolved as a legal status, it reflected and included as a part of its essence, the same (racial) discrimination which white men had practiced against the Negro all along and before any statutes decreed it.” Carl Delger’s argument explicitly states that the racist attitude of Whites was the root cause for the origination of slavery. He says that “long before slavery or black labor became an important part of the southern economy, a special and inferior status had been worked out for the Negroes who came to the English colonies. Unquestionably it was a demand for labor which dragged the Negro to American shores, but the status which he acquired here cannot be explained by reference to that economic motive.” He claims that although slavery was legalized half a century after the and terms like ‘slave’ were not used to define Negros, their treatment wasn’t any better. Many scholars like Carl N. Degler argue that the Whites were inherently racist and practiced racism on everyone who belonged to a different race. This trait is evident because before the Whites had...
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